Opinion: You wouldn’t steal a soybean…

Mark Oprea

Mark Oprea

Mark Oprea is a junior English major and columnist for the Daily Kent Stater. Contact him at [email protected]

When Monsanto Co. is mentioned in the news, there are always some people eager to ready their torches and pitchforks. Others may stand around scratching their heads asking, “Who?” With the arrival of last week’s court case, the tendency to oppose the company on account of its dark history is easy. But this case extends past a simple battle between farmer and corporation.

Last Tuesday, 75 year-old Indiana farmer Vernon Hugh Bowman was brought to the Supreme Court to continue his strife with biotech company Monsanto. Accused of violating a patent aimed at preventing the farmer from replanting the progeny of genetically modified soybeans, he faces a hefty $84,000 fine. Bowman’s lawyer mentioned an exception to this patent, stating that it is “exhausted” in subsequent generations of crop. A win for Bowman would relieve fellow farmers of patent-infringement worry but would also make the 20-year patent protection Monsanto claims ineffective.

Those in support of Monsanto — including the Obama administration — wonder why a company should spend more than a decade developing this agricultural technology only to have someone exploit a loophole in its patent. It is merely a violation of the law, not patent abuse. That is, should we sympathize with Monsanto based solely on this legal logic, or should there be more consideration of its past?

For one, Monsanto has encountered dozens of lawsuits and plenty of dissenters throughout the 112 year-old company’s corruption-filled history. In the 1970s, Monsanto was sued $180 million for the harmful aftereffects resulting from its chemical Agent Orange, used in the Vietnam War. And in the 1990s, it was convicted of dumping toxic waste into a river in Connecticut — after 40 years of doing so.

Besides attempting to cover up public awareness of its unethical behavior, Monsanto has been one of the most eminent members in the field of biotechnological research. In 1982, it was the first company to successfully modify a plant’s genetic information, allowing scientists in the 1990s to create a “Roundup Ready” line of crops resistant to weed killers and insects. Many scientists support the research of GMOs, such as Bill Gates, believing that advances in biotechnology are a viable route to end world hunger.

As I said before, this case is not entirely about soybeans; it is about patent infringement. This is why dozens of software companies are anxiously awaiting the trial’s result, as it will only extend the ethical debate surrounding “self-replicating” technology. Let me compare this to the music industry, which also sees countless amounts of copyright infringement lawsuits annually. If I were to obtain a copy of, let’s say, Kesha’s new single (please don’t judge), then replicate it and distribute it, I would be in violation of the license I acquired when downloading the song. This transgression revolves around the ethical slipperiness in self-replicating products, whether they are soybeans or digital music.

But the Supreme Court is not weighing the ramifications of illegally replicating pop tunes; it is concerned with the self-replication of living organisms. Economical incentives will always encounter ethical limitations. The question really is what the limitations of patenting genetic information are — does this inhibit scientific research or allow it to prosper? To what extent is this soybean like a piece of music?